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Demons Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    “Welcome to the Dark Ages!”

    The search to find a British horror/fantasy show to combat the Beeb's Doctor Who is great for fans of such a creative genre because it means lots of make-believe for us grown-ups to enjoy as well. With more and more variations arriving - Being Human is a wicked slant on what sounded like a really a hackneyed premise - the notion of mainstream monsters and ghouls is definitely getting a regular shot in the arm, what with a new season of Primeval running at the moment, too. But this generic offering from creators John Capps and Julian Murphy was more than likely doomed right from the outset. Owing more to Joss Whedon's Buffy than any other home-grown slice of paranormal shenanigans seen thus far, the basic idea behind it feels stale almost from the get-go. Which is a terrible shame as there is actually much to commend the show, if your love for the genre is all-embracing and you happen to be, well, easily pleased. Of course, having a cool, young and trendy hero, street-wise, cocksure and nimble in a fracas also smacks of Supernatural, a show that has, itself, weathered some fundamental knocks and dull stretches, though generally still manages to come up with the goods time after time.

    The premise behind this show - which only ran to six episodes in its first (and possibly only) series - is nothing new. Luke Rutherford, the last surviving descendant of Abraham Van Helsing (yes the original Van Helsing of bloodsucker-staking fame) is sought out by a secret band of human(ish) warriors to fulfil his destiny and help them to keep the hordes of supernatural freaks and oddities, that apparently live right alongside us, at bay. And, under the tutelage of Philip Glenister's Rupert Galvin, who once worked alongside Luke's father, a slayer who was killed in the line of duty when Luke was but a baby, the fate-bound teenager is forced to juggle monster-bashing with college-work and clubbing. Joined in this endeavour by, ahem, part-time vampire Mina Harker (Zoe Tapper) and various other guest-stars along the way - step forward Richard Wilson as a typically cantankerous and supposedly zombified cleric, Father Simeon, residing in a time-locked abbey - Luke (the likeable Christian Cooke) will unearth some bizarre truths about his heritage and the fragility of his existence, confront creatures of myth and from hidden realms, and still make it home in time for tea.

    It has all been done before - and done much better, of course. Demons sits on the fringe of numerous neat ideas, but contrives to blow practically all of them out of the water with its particularly childish dependency upon the successful stories and characters that it has, most shamelessly, pilfered.

    He may have received some bad comments from other reviewers and critics for his performance here - many call him arrogant - but Cooke is actually pretty good in the role of a kid who is initially sceptical and openly mocking of all this wacky stuff, but one who then comes to accept and even embrace his exciting new persona. He does have a certain brashness which comes to the surface on a few occasions, though, that does, inevitably, undermine his fine work elsewhere. And, it has to be said, that his attempts at coming over as broodingly haunted - seen especially during the lacklustre final episode - are woeful.

    Luke may be the main star of the show, but the obvious draw to this colourful Saturday evening ITV1 romp was the casting of Philip Glenister. However, his gruff warrior/mentor is a dreary, cliché-ridden amalgamation of “M”, Buffy's Rupert Giles, Yoda and Mr. Miyagi. For a kick-off, Glenister is saddled with a ridiculous American accent that neither convinces, nor makes any sense. Unless, perhaps, it is a token homage to the character of Quincy P. Morris, the ill-fated Texan adventurer in Stoker's original novel, Dracula. Glenister, himself, remarked that the original script had Galvin as hailing from Texas, (despite some scatty talk of Pennsylvania or Nebraska, or somewhere in the final episode) although his origin is never actually mentioned throughout the series. And the fact that he is a marvellous actor who is unjustifiably slumming it here feels like a smack in the mush. And, yes, he is definitely slumming it in Demons. His performance is bland and totally lacking in conviction or direction. His embittered evil-battler is such a formulaic character that you could virtually write his hugely expositional dialogue yourself. The very first time that we meet him, he is decked-out in trench-coat and wide-brimmed hat, horribly evoking the image of Hugh Jackman's incarnation of Van Helsing from that turgid over-long CG mess from a few years ago and, indeed, he spends the rest of the series - barring a smattering of three-second action scenes and rescues - acting like he should be cooped-up inside the same film's loopy Vatican headquarters, spouting ominous drivel. He does nothing but research their foes and ladle plot-points around as though he is a thought-bubble being bounced around the writers' team-talk session. Think of Gordon Jackson's Cowley to Luke and Mina's Professionals. Or, most pertinently of all, Anthony Head's Watcher (another Rupert, we should take note) from Buffy. Glenister has a great presence, normally, and his Gene Hunt from Life On Mars and now Ashes To Ashes has become a bonafide small-screen icon, but you clearly get the impression that he took this part on board either under false pretences or as a favour.

    Mina Harker, now blind and an esteemed concert pianist, has psychic abilities of premonition and foresight. She is also, unsurprisingly, suppressing her own craving for blood - a condition, by the way, that allows her to temporarily see again. But this blindness angle is really quite daft. She operates, for the most part, as a normally sighted person, so much so, in fact, that for two episodes I completely forgot that she was meant to be blind. Zoe Tapper, who plays her, is certainly lovely, and she does possess a rather uncanny credibility as someone who is supposedly way over a hundred years old, but her portrayal of anything other than a fully-sighted person is impossible to believe. So often she seems to arrive at the crucial moment from all the way across London that you might actually believe she has Superman's power of flight, too.

    Holly Grainger's Ruby is the wannabe-girlfriend who tags along throughout the six adventures and, in quite a refreshing change from the norm, actually manages to hold her own in-amidst all this weirdness and even comes to save the day on a couple of occasions. Well, okay, she does wind up in jeopardy out of purely conventional genre obligation a few times, but she also does a lot more than simply scream, trip over and get tied-up by pesky critters as bait. Her rivalry with Mina is actually well-handled, their sparky verbal snipes dry and amusing, although the reason for their inability to get along - Luke - is fumbled quite badly. We understand Ruby's infatuation with him, but what is Mina's motive - protector, guardian, ally, mature girlfriend? The script never makes it clear what she is after and any possible love triangle is swiftly nixed in the very next scene, when we get back to the matter of this episode's story.

    But what about the monsters and the special effects?

    Well, these are a mixed-bag. Most of the CG creations look like they have just rolled out of The Mill's Room 101, not even passing muster for, say, Christopher Eccleston's tour of duty as the Doctor. Episode 1's gremlin-monkey is a cute design, to be fair, but horribly fake-looking at the same time. In a certain frame of mind, the Harpy-dragon from the episode "Smitten" has a spooky presence - until you see it swooping around Luke's head during a very poor rooftop encounter, that is. A morphing face early on is quite accomplished, however, as are the numerous ticker-tape entity explosions whenever a beastie is blown away. But where Demons scores in its creature-of-the-week showcase is in its prosthetics. The horrible top-hatted ogre, Redlips is a slab-faced stand-out appearing in the very first story. Looking like the actor Clancy Brown - think of the Kurgan from Highlander with a Victorian music-hall twist - he has size and intimidation on his side, but also possesses a truly sinister and macabre aura. Redlips works for Mackenzie Crook's ghoulish Teddy Boy bounty hunter from the Underworld called Gladiolus Thrip - a pontificating, demonic cockney wide-boy, replete with superhuman speed and a bone-cut nose extension - but it is only Redlips who actually makes any impact. A large gargoyle-like child-snatcher is squandered in a last-minute confrontation with a heroic Luke - but its alter-ego as a chilling little girl going out abducting more innocent souls is much better value. Ray McAnally's nasty rat-man, Mr. Tibbs - there's all sorts of animal-headed critters in here, which is an unfortunate lift from one of the new Doctor Who's most annoying aspects - actually benefits from the minimal make-up that has been applied. They couldn't resist sticking that tail on his backside, though, I see.

    In a neat riff on Fright Night Part II, the show even comes up with a great Ten-Pin Bowling gore gag in the pivotal vampire episode. In a moment of frustration, the lead neck-nibbler (called, ironically, Quincy, and something of a defiant follow-on from events in Stoker's book) grabs his Mohawk-haired lieutenant, Zippy (Peter G. Reed), and unzips the ageing punk's head from his shoulders and then bowls it down the lane to score a grotesque strike. The head, still-living and grinning, is then picked-up by an unwitting bowler in the next lane. Things like this, and the fact that people are routinely despatched - one is even casually shot in the face at point-blank range by Mr. Tibbs - make the show uneven in its tone. The odd swear-word even issues forth, despite the overall feeling of the series being somewhat cosier than these rogue moments would initially lead you to believe.

    But please don't get me started on the weaponry our heroes have. Inspired by the equally stupid accoutrements from the big screen Van Helsing, an utterly ridiculous “pulse” gun is brought embarrassingly into play from Galvin's shoulder-holster much too often, and then there is the ornate, clockwork-looking mini Winchester Rifle that Luke occasionally sports which would shame the toy section of any flea-bitten corner shop.

    But, despite all of the creators' attempts to persuade me otherwise, I still almost enjoyed the show. With a strange sort of Neil Gaiman meets Clive Barker approach to the weekly “half-lifes”, as these netherworlders are monikered, the individual stories flit between Neo-Gothic vampires, subterranean hybrids, oddballs who exist in Harry Potter-style enclaves and toy with secret esoterica, pesky gremlins and devious lapsed angels. One surprisingly effective angle is the deployment of hyena-faced, mutant Hoodies as instinct-governed, delinquent hench-demons who embody the spirit of misrule quite viscerally. Coming across as a hell-spawned troupe of hip street-dancers - the type of acrobatic group that you see on Britain's Got Talent - they flip about over car-roofs and somersault with visually inventive, though damningly theatrical, aplomb. The thing is, if they stopped flinging themselves around for a moment they could defeat our slayers with ease. But this “hidden” reality is a concept that I like. A good analogy made early on by Galvin to explain the situation to a bemused Luke reminds us that we are only supposed to be a foot away from a rat at any given time, and that the rats outnumber us seven to one - the “half-lifes” outnumbering us considerably more.

    Having Luke train in various martial arts disciplines may well be yawn-inducing - to more than merely Buffy-fans - but it does actually make sense if he is to go toe-to-claw, paw, wing, fang or whatever else is thrown at him during the course of his alternate career. Plus, of course, it allows for regular bouts of MTV-edit-style skirmishes that, in another little boon for the show, are actually quite violent. One brawl that sees Luke saving the new cute blonde at the school (Laura Aikman from CITV's The Mysti Show) features an attempted gang-mugging and some crunching punches to the face and even a terrific reverse head-butt. And, hey, these things are important. But there is another adherence to format that soon becomes wearisome. Luke's mother crops up in almost every episode, much like that other celebrated single-mum to a paranormal activist - Rose Tyler's bubbly blonde parent in Doctor Who. But whereas Camille Coduri's yummy-mummy, Jackie Tyler, actually became involved in the odd adventure and was an essential ingredient in the format, Saskia Wickham's Jenny Rutherford is tied to the family flat and, primarily, the kitchen table. Confined to wistful looks at her son and troubled expressions when reminded of her deceased husband, she becomes the humdrum symbol of that moment in an episode when you know that everything is safe and we are now on obligatory downtime.

    But, on the plus side once more, the London locations are quite well used. In fact, the urban feel of the show and its external work are actually much better than anything we've seen in either Doctor Who or the awful Torchwood. We get the usual warehouses and sewers but, in Demons, and it may simply be down to the lighting or the production design, they seem more genuine and substanial. And, I have to say, I definitely recognise one of the locations in the big vampire episode, "Suckers", because it was exactly the same place in which Channel 4 once turned me from a “Zero To Hero” (and back again!) several years ago for their naff and short-lived superhero/contraption design game-show. When things get eerie, green glows tend to appear and this aids the otherworldly atmosphere of the below-ground lairs and locales considerably. But, naturally, the best set of all just has to be the vast, CG-augmented Stacks - our heroes' subterranean headquarters - which is lengthened by what looks like one of those Tardis-style inversions of physics. There is always something cool about spectral libraries and this one, with its cases of creature artefacts - which are never really offered up for scrutiny, unfortunately - and medieval-style barricades and doors, and endless shelves has a timeless quality that works well. The makers know it, too, and ensure that we get a visit there several times per episode.

    The show's score is also quite effective. Once we get past the rather duff and tonally askew main title song, “Eyes Of The Night” by Starlight Mints, the music composed by Jack C. Arnold comes to the fore. With plenty of stingers and oodles of dramatic suspense and creepy atmosphere, the show, at least, sounds good, capturing the necessary darkness of the horror set-up.

    But, perhaps the biggest and most unrecoverable stumble that the show makes is the mythology that the writers have attempted to wrestle with in order to umbrella their entire narrative with a consistent theme. It is one thing following in the footsteps of the classics, but actually asserting that the events and characters of Bram Stoker's Dracula are real and that the likes of Mina Harker could simply move through society and the huge culture that has built up surrounding her, ahem, romanticised misadventures with the Count, takes some swallowing. Where these characters have been used in the past - Stephen Sommers' Van Helsing, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, say - they have been lifted directly from their literary source and exist in a world that has not read of their exploits in books and comics or seen them in countless movies. Here, Mina Harker signs autographs for her fans and no-one uses the opportunity to ask her about that “big” connection to “that” book. Just as bad is that when Luke asks about vampires and werewolves, Galvin informs him that they don't refer to any of these creatures in such a manner. Instead they just categorise them as numerical “types”. Just how needlessly boring is that? The writers take the easy route way too often and, worse yet, actually play piggy-back with the successful formats that have gone before.

    A major problem that Demons continually faces is that it doesn't seem to know who it is aiming at. Kids love monsters. Early, mid and late-teens are sure as hell going to identify with Luke and the all-too-conventional trivialities of girlfriends, exams and driving tests, but the attempts at shoehorning these elements into the narrative will, inevitably, leave more mature viewers cold and uninterested. Much more intriguing would be the back-story of Mina and Rupert, but even this is hopelessly botched with meaningless hints and literary contrivance. Mina flirts with her own dark side and this, finally, is something that, if you'll pardon the expression, is something that we can get our teeth into. Yet, this comes too late in the day and only ends up becoming a risible homage to the likes of Kate Beckinsale and the Underworld franchise.

    With Glenister having announced that he will not be returning for a second series, the future of Demons looks uncertain ... but certainly grim. Whilst not too many people would mourn its loss, I feel that, given the right impetus, some better writing and a more coherent and less derivative approach, the show could still be worthwhile. But it seems that this may never now happen. Although I possibly have more patience with this type of thing than a lot of people - and I did stick with the full series and even enjoyed it on a very low level, I can't really recommend it, or award it more than a 4 out of 10.

    I should point out that this Blu-ray disc is encoded for regions A, B and C, yet would not work on my US PS3, despite it being up to date with the latest firmware. However, the disc does work with UK machines and even with my US, and now vintage, Samsung player.